Column | Feb. 18

Outside the Bubble: Double standards

Two weeks ago, famed Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman — known for his roles in major films like Capote, The Ides of March and The Hunger Games — was found dead in his apartment of apparent heroin overdose.

The 46-year-old actor, lauded by The New York Times as “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” had a history of drug abuse during college. Although he remained clean for more than 20 years, last year he fell off the wagon, checking himself into rehab. In light of this, his sudden death was a sobering and shocking surprise; many had thought he was completely clean.

However, despite the loss of an amazing actor, many are conflating his cinematic talents with the acceptability of hard drugs like heroin.

In the United States, there is a strong culture against hard drugs, with 86 percent opposing legalization of heroin in a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll. Only the day before his death, NPR put out a piece on how 22 people in Pennsylvania overdosed the week and a half before because of a tainted batch of heroin. The public reaction was much less sympathetic. One commenter, writing before the news of Hoffman’s death was public, wrote:

“I am not sympathetic to the plight of the addicts. Everyone knows it can and will eventually kill you. So when I hear about the ODs, my only regret is that we end up paying for their medical costs or funerals.”

Another commented, “That’s one way to reduce the number of users.” Yet, in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman, there were no chides against him or his activities, simply shock and sadness.

I’m not saying that his death is not a tragic loss. It undoubtedly is. However, we need to realize the double standards we are perpetuating.

Drug abuse is a growing national problem. For example, from 2002-12 alone, the number of heroin users in the United States jumped from around 400,000 to 700,000, and those numbers don’t even consider all of the other types of drugs that are abused. Yet, we continually think that most people who participate are not worthy of our help, let alone our sympathy. At the same time, on campus, drugs definitely are present.

From the well-known story of former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who was caught with “enough marijuana in his room to fill two size-12 shoe boxes,” LSD and prescription pills, to the several student arrests in the past school year alone, those who are found with drugs rarely face serious punishment. In Daniels’ case, he was charged a $350 fine for “maintaining a common nuisance.”

I’ll admit that marijuana is no way even close to heroin in terms of its potency and danger. Yet, while Princeton students are getting a slap on the wrist, according to American journalist Eric Schlosser (best known for Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal), some people are “getting life without parole for a joint or for less than a joint.” As he notes, “by and large, the poor and working class people” are the ones who are getting imprisoned.

In a period of great national divisions, evident with the rise of groups such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, it is easy to see why people are getting into a fuss. How are we, as a nation, supposed to move forward when we hold the well-educated, rich and famous to completely different standards than the poor and working class, who make up most of the population?

By turning a blind eye to abuse and law-breaking from those at the top, we cement the idea in the head of the privileged who get away that their special treatment is not only acceptable, but also the norm. This not only makes most drug laws fail completely as a deterrent but also solidifies an elitist mindset.

Once again, I’m not saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman should not be mourned. But when we dismiss his drug abuse in light of his other accomplishments, while continuing to deride thousands of ordinary Americans who deal with similar issues, we are only exacerbating the problem and creating more division.

There are obviously numerous ways that one might potentially resolve this, from decriminalization to legalization or even stricter punishments. Regardless, it is clear that holding different parts of society to different standards of justice is the wrong answer. Hoffman will be remembered as a terrific actor and a lovable person, but even the greatest of men have flaws. We shouldn’t let his success or status blind us. All men are created equal should mean more to us than just a catchy slogan.

Benjamin Dinovelli is a sophomore from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at bjd5@princeton.edu.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misstated the state in which Mitch Daniels served as governor. He was the governor of Indiana. 

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